Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
(I would sing more of Handel’s wonderful tenor line here, but I don’t want to spoil it for you!) Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.
The Sunday schedule of readings for Advent and then on into Christmas is full and almost overflowing with the poetry of the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is a wonderful gift for us in the coming weeks. And building from these beautiful turning-point verses from Chapter 40.
We might say that it is something like the background music for the season, touching us and shaping our impressions and perceptions and experience of the solemn and powerful message we meet here in Advent and Christmas again and again.
Ancient Holy Jerusalem in ruins. A remnant and broken people scattered in exile. In the hour of deepest defeat, darkness, despair, when all hope seems to have melted away, and beyond all deserving, God acts, redeems, forgives, restores, renews. Comfort.
That as we lean forward with longing and anticipation as the windows in the Advent calendar chart the way in the journey to Bethlehem and the Manger, so we lean forward as well here and now in the midst of our day to day lives to the completion of his story and to what it will mean for us to be lifted up into his final victory. Advent. Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness; and put upon us the armor of light, now in time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.
A season all about hope. Not as a hypothesis, a theoretical proposition, but suddenly to appear as a concrete effective reality in the midst of our lives. Dayspring from on high. The shimmering of a perfect dawn on the horizon of the world’s dark night. Even when we are surrounded and even as we are infected by such profound brokenness. Personal loss. Regret. Mistakes. Hurtful and self-centered words and actions. Turned in on ourselves, is the classic description of this human condition. Incurvatus in se. Turning away from God and from one another. The inclination of sin. Social dislocation, all of humanity. Even when the whole wide world we live in from the Middle East to East Asia to Missouri and New York and to our neighborhood and city.
The opening of Isaiah’s 40th chapter, and God the Holy Spirit speaks though the Prophet: Comfort my people. And then this wonderful phrase. An imperative, a command. Daber al-leb. The Hebrew, translated in King James’s English as “speak ye tenderly,” but that’s only part of it. It’s 30 years since my last Hebrew class, but always fun and meaningful to turn back to the first language of the text. More literally, “Comfort my people, speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” Daber al-leb.
And a reminder that in Hebrew poetic imagery the heart is not simply as it mostly is in English about emotions. Feelings. We say “mind and heart” to talk about two different kinds of perception, but that wasn’t a division in the Hebrew way of thought. The heart is also where all cognition and reason and feeling are said to reside. One place rather than two. Some academic translators that I’ve read concerning this passage from Isaiah prefer something more like, “Comfort my people, persuade them completely.” What we mean when we talk about “winning hearts and minds.” The Prophet’s call not simply to be soft and affectionate, but a comforting word that is most of all, thorough and transformative--that that communicates entirely, from the whole person, to the whole person, to the whole people, God’s chosen, that overcomes every reservation and doubt, every hesitation and objection, every hidden point of resistance--that searches out and cleanses and refreshes every dark corner of life. Speak to them so that the message fills every part of them.
Speak in this full way to Israel. Let her know through and through that her warfare is over, the crushing and shattering consequences of her unfaithfulness and sin, now come to an end. That a new day is dawning. An Advent, Easter hymn: The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won.
A complete conversion of life. Scattered across the lands of exile, in ghettos and refugee camps from Iran and Iraq to Egypt and Yemen, the surviving remnant to stand and sing with full voice, I once was lost, but now am found . . . . A long, long time before John Newton would compose the text of that hymn. But all there in Isaiah 40: Amazing Grace.
And at the heart of this season, this New Year: What are we looking for? What’s on our Christmas list? What to add to our New Year Resolutions this year? The hopes and fears of all the years. What you and I are bringing to the table this morning, this season. Just to pause over that. Really and truly, in the deepest secret places of our “minds and hearts.”
The penetrating word, to enter us and to fill us completely. Advent not a few weeks of superficial holiday cheer, but an invitation to a thoroughgoing conversion, a new life. A fresh start. To know the gracious and generous gift of his forgiveness, his love. Beyond our deserving. To experience a renewal. To become a new people, and each of us a new person. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.
We see him coming in his manger bed, the Child of Bethlehem. We watch for him in the East, our triumphant King returning in his glorious majesty. And the reading somehow flows off the page and into our lives. A word for us. Comfort ye my people.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.